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5th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Officials: Health should become EU 'critical infrastructure'

  • The pandemic showed how some EU countries were forced to rely on others for key medical supplies (Photo: Leaf)

Senior officials are now calling for the EU's disparate healthcare systems to be included as "critical infrastructure" in the light of the interdependencies between member states exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of officials argue in a new white paper that the existing European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection (EPCIP) could now play a key role in EU's public health emergency preparedness.

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The signatories include former MEPs, top officials from the EU's External Action Service and former heads of Intelligence Service.

The EPCIP is currently focused on protecting national and European energy and transport infrastructure, although health infrastructure is - in theory - included too.

Critical infrastructures are complex systems - such as pipelines, power plants, stock markets, railways - whose destruction or disruption could lead to significant loss of life or material damage.

However, hospital facilities, laboratories or emergency stockpiles of medical equipment also fit this description - especially when the coronavirus pandemic has shown how some EU countries were forced to rely on others for protective equipment, test and other types of resources.

"The pandemic should be a wake-up call that the EU is facing collective risks requiring not just collective answers, but also the acknowledgement of the already existing interdependencies [of its health systems]," said Alexandru Georgescu, one of the signatories and expert from the National Institute for Research and Development in Informatics in Bucharest.

"The goal of the white paper is to highlight the existence of a mechanism for cooperation, coordination, communication and for the dissemination of best practices which can already be applied to the health sector," Georgescu told EUobserver.

"Countries have to understand these pre-existing interdependencies to increase systemic resilience not just in the face of terrorism or cyber-attacks, but also in the face of severe unanticipated non-deliberate disruptions such as the pandemic," he added.

The white paper also states that the European Commission should coordinate with member states to identify the critical health infrastructures, which are key in the response to the current and possible future health crisis in the EU.

"The EU should not be preparing for the next coronavirus or the next pandemic, but for the next health crises, also in interconnection with other crises such as food, water, energy, ... - which may involve different scenarios and the admission that full prevention, while it must be attempted, is not feasible," reads the white paper.

Expect the unexpected

"The EU must 'expect the unexpected'," it adds.

The white paper also proposes different initiatives to enhance EU's competence in the health sector, including a European Anti Epidemic Force in collaboration with Nato or a specific agency to fight pandemics similar to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Additionally, the group of signatories urge the expansion of the role, authority and resources of the Emergency Response Coordination Centre and a European Crisis Management Laboratory - which are currently responding to the EU commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič.

In December, member states concluded that protecting national and European critical infrastructures is a key priority for the EU and invited the commission to update rules previously adopted back in 2008.

The new proposal is expected to be announced by the EU's executive body at the end of this year and to include an impact assessment, according to the work programme.

However, it itself could be postponed due to coronavirus.

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